Marcus Roberts, senior researcher at independent think-thank Maxim Institute in Auckland New Zealand

The Art of Political Defection: Personal Grievances or Political Realignment?

By Marcus Roberts May 16, 2023

“Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.” So said Winston Churchill regarding the first 25 years of his political career, which saw him elected as a Conservative MP, jump ship to become a Liberal Cabinet Minister, defect to be an Independent and eventually return as a Conservative MP.

These political musical chairs may also help shed light on underlying political dynamics.

We have yet to see that level of political manoeuvring in New Zealand, but recent weeks have seen some high-profile political defections. First, Elizabeth Kerekere left the Green Party to become an independent MP. More shocking was the earlier defection of Meka Whaitiri from Labour to Te Pāti Māori/Independent: a sitting Minister of the Crown (albeit one sitting outside of Cabinet) does not lightly change parties.

There seem to be clear personal reasons for these decisions: Kerekere felt that the Green party had made it “untenable” for her to continue to work with it amidst accusations of bullying, a missent Whatsapp message and an internal review.

According to commentator Bryce Edwards, Whaitiri “failed to point to any substantive policy or philosophical differences with the party she had represented…for nearly 10 years.” Edwards thinks that her decision has more to do with Whaitiri getting overlooked in reshuffles.

All such personal conflicts are ephemeral, but these political musical chairs may also help shed light on underlying political dynamics.

The electorate’s concerns and interests can change.

When Whaitiri announced her move, she stated, “Māori political activism is part of being Māori…I’m acknowledging my responsibility to it and it’s calling me home.” According to Whaitiri, the home of Māori political activism is not the Labour Party. But for so long, the Labour Party was seen as the natural (and only?) home of Māori electorally—only six years ago, the Labour Party won all seven Māori seats. The electorate’s concerns and interests can change. But so too do political parties: after campaigning to abolish the Māori seats, National is contesting at least some of them for the first time since 2002.

Kerekere’s departure can also be placed within a broader “civil war” within the Green Party between its social justice wing and its more environmentally-focused constituency. Kerekere belonged to the former and seemed to have lost her struggle with Party leader James Shaw. Shaw is aligned with the environmental faction, and while he has seen off Kerekere, the environmental wing seems to be weakening within the party. Kerekere’s supporters may well have the last laugh.

The working classes are increasingly being taken for granted in our politics.

This shifting electoral alignment can be seen elsewhere on the spectrum. The working classes are increasingly being taken for granted in our politics. No one sitting today in Parliament is working-class; half a century ago, a fifth of our MPs had a working-class background. This is not just a New Zealand phenomenon. One of the reasons for Boris Johnson’s unexpected crushing victory in 2019 is that he tapped into at least some working-class voters’ concerns.

Remember; MPs represent the people who voted for them and therefore must prioritise the needs of their constituents. Instead of focusing solely on personal grievances, it would be more productive to work towards addressing the concerns of all groups.

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Marcus Roberts, senior researcher at independent think-thank Maxim Institute in Auckland New Zealand

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